The Journal of Jules Renard
This is another of those volumes which purport to do justice to a neglected writer. Jules Renard, who died in 1910 at the age of forty-six, had his moment of fame at the turn of the century with his collection of autobiographical sketches called Poil de Carotte, the basis of which is an Oedipal hate-relationship between mother and son. His output of short prose studies and of plays was quite meager, but he left behind him a Journal, which has become sufficiently well-known to run into at least three major editions: one in the Oeuvres complètes, one in the ordinary Gallimard style of 1935, and a third in the Pléiade series. There are grounds, then, for considering it as a classic, and it seems natural enough that Renard should be brought to the notice of the English-speaking public.
However, this volume hardly represents a satisfactory way of carrying out the operation. The text, as Louise Bogan explains in her Introduction, is only a selection from the original. When a Journal consists entirely of aphorisms and very short reflections or descriptions, the effect is achieved by the mass of tiny impressions; to trim the mass is to risk producing an effect of thinness or bowdlerization. I notice that some of the more disagreeable or indecent jottings have been left out and other entries have actually been shortened by the translator. Renard, who was not blessed with a lavish literary nature, does not gain by being truncated. The original itself is really an abridgement. According to Paul Léautaud, who had the information from the first editor, Bachelin, Madame Renard cut out two thirds of the manuscript, because of details about illicit love affairs that she had not been aware of during her husband’s lifetime. If this is true, Renard has been doubly curtailed before he reaches the English-speaking reader, and could legitimately complain of being harshly treated by the ladies.
Then, the translation is often unidiomatic and at times frankly incorrect, which is a serious matter in the case of so painstaking a writer as Renard. For instance, we do not say “to have something in the belly” (avoir quelque chose dans le ventre) but “to have something in him,” “to have something to say,” “to have talent,” etc. Nor is the following description of Verlaine an acceptable English sentence: “Above clothes in ruins—a yellow tie, an overcoat that must stick to his flesh in several places—a head out of building stone in process of demolition.”
But the main defect is that Louise Bogan’s Introduction consists of indiscriminate praise, makes no attempt to put Renard into any critical perspective, and includes a number of doubtful statements: e.g., “Hard facts concerning family relationships were not usual in end-of-the-century writing.” A final, meretricious touch is that a quotation from Sartre is used for publicity purpose on the dust-jacket: “Directly or indirectly, Renard is at the origin of contemporary literature.” It is nowhere explained that the sentence is drawn from …